No Oscar flight for 'Superman'

Monday, January 31, 2011

The movie that made Michelle Rhee a big-screen star was the talk of two coasts and one of the most-seen documentaries of 2010. For months, "Waiting for 'Superman' " collected awards and built buzz - stories in Time, segments on "Oprah." The only question was whether the wrenching exploration of the American public school system would win D.C.-bred director Davis Guggenheim his second Oscar.

Well, forget that: When the Academy Award nominations were announced last week, "Superman" didn't even make the list.

Was it the politics? The buzziest documentaries stir controversy, but "Superman" had more than its share. After opening to widespread praise in September, a slow backlash set in. In November, Guggenheim acknowledged to the New York Times that one emotional scene - where a mother expresses her hopes of getting her son into an elite school - was staged after she had learned that he was shut out. Some ed-policy folks complained the narrative was rigged in favor of union antagonists like Rhee and against union leaders like American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, and that its message, advocating for privatization and charter schools, was unquestioning and naive.

Did that hurt the film with Hollywood types? "It isn't the advocacy that appears to bother them," said analyst Sasha Stone. "It is that they probably didn't agree with the film's politics in the end."

Still, many Oscar geeks think "Superman's" fate with the academy "just came down to them liking other movies more," Stone said.

According to a veteran of many awards publicity campaigns (who asked not to be named; publicists like to stay in the shadows), docs on similar topics often end up competing with one another, a dynamic behind other Oscar disses this year: Voters could see their way to picking only one doc about war and one about Wall Street, so "Restrepo" edged out "The Tillman Story" and "Client 9" lost out to "Inside Job." "Superman" was probably in unofficial competition with "The Lottery," an acclaimed but lesser-known doc about public education that wasn't nominated either - perhaps they canceled each other out.

Plus, it's a tough crowd: The academy's '90s overhaul of its voting system for documentaries - the field is now winnowed by panels that view every single eligible film - means the power is concentrated within an elite cadre of the documentary world, folks unmoved by popular tastes or big box-office hauls. It's a group that has been loath to hand out repeat Oscars. (Guggenheim won four years ago for "An Inconvenient Truth.") And maybe some resent that, while they struggle to finance their films, "Superman" got $2 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to promote its message.

Of course, the point of winning an Oscar, for many, is to sell more tickets. "Superman" has already earned $6 million - only crowd-pleasing travelogues "Oceans" and "Babies" did better among 2010 docs. "It would be hard to imagine a film that had a bigger impact on public policy this year," said Mike Feldman, whose Glover Park Group worked on the "Superman" marketing campaign. "By that standard it was a huge success."

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